Detainees at California’s for-profit ICE detention centers will soon be able to sue over abuse, harm

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LOS ANGELES — Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill Sunday backed by immigrant-rights advocates that mandates greater accountability by the companies that operate federal detention facilities in California.

Assembly Bill 3228 allows people to sue private detention facility operators for failing to comply with the standards of care outlined in the facility’s contract and to collect “reasonable” costs and attorney’s fees. The bill is the first of its kind in the nation, supporters say.

It’s the latest twist in the fight among California leaders, federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and the corporations that manage the four immigration detention facilities in the state.

Advocates say that private prison companies have been shielded by an oversight scheme that allows them to violate the minimum standards of care on a regular basis.

“The highest level of scrutiny should be placed on any for-profit entity,” said Hamid Yazdan Panah, advocacy director for the nonprofit Immigrant Defense Advocates, which sponsored the bill. “We have to be certain that they’re not placing profit above human lives.”

AB 3228 builds upon AB 32, which banned new private prisons and detention centers after Jan. 1 and called for existing facilities to close by 2028.

Days before AB 32 took effect, ICE officials signed contracts totaling nearly $6.5 billion with the three companies that operate the agency’s California facilities. The contracts have terms of 15 years, including two five-year extensions, ending in 2034.

One of those companies, the GEO Group, sued Newsom and Attorney General Xavier Becerra, alleging that AB 32 is a “transparent attempt by the state to shut down the federal government’s detention efforts within California’s borders” and asking the court to forbid the state from enforcing the statute. GEO, one of the country’s largest private prison operators, manages ICE facilities in Adelanto and Bakersfield.

The Trump administration followed with a similar lawsuit, and the two were consolidated in court proceedings. In a tentative ruling in July, a federal judge in San Diego suggested that she was likely to dismiss most of the case against California.

According to reports filed with the California secretary of state, GEO spent a combined $73,400 from January through June lobbying against AB 3228 and another bill that sought to expand access to legal counsel in immigrant detention centers but did not advance in the Legislature.

This legislation comes amid increasing reports of medical neglect and abuse inside private detention facilities across the country. Last week, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform released the results of a 14-month investigation into for-profit ICE contractors, which found that several detainees died after receiving inadequate medical care, including one man who died at the Adelanto detention facility northeast of Los Angeles.

Democratic Assemblymember Rob Bonta authored both AB 32 and AB 3228. He called the signing of AB 3228 a victory for human rights and for justice.

“This is California putting our people first,” he said. “Our California values make clear that no one is above the law. For-profit, private detention centers must be held accountable in the face of egregious human rights violations and harm to the health, safety, and welfare of Californians, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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